Heroines, Smugglers and Spies – The Forgotten Contributions of Women to the American Civil War

Women's contributions to the Civil War have been neglected by historians until only very recently.

Women did more during the Civil War than just see their sweethearts off to battle. They gathered intelligence, cared for the sick and moved weapons and supplies through the lines. Karen Abbott, journalist and best-selling author of the novel Liar Temptress Soldier Spy tells some of their stories.

“Women on both sides fueled their states’ war efforts. Some chafed at the limitations society set for them and determined to change the course of the war.”

A romanticized portrayal of American womanhood, circa 1861.

A romanticized portrayal of American womanhood, circa 1861.

By Karen Abbott

THERE WAS WORK FOR EVERYONE during the American Civil War… even women—especially women.

Mothers, sisters and wives had to adjust quickly to the sudden absence of men. And while women had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse and no influence in how the battles were to be waged, they did take control of America’s homes, businesses and plantations. Women on both sides fueled their states’ war efforts. They raised money for weapons, supplies and materiel through the aid societies they founded and ran. Others rolled bandages, sewed banners and made uniforms. And some—privately or publicly, with shrewd caution or gleeful abandon—chafed at the limitations society set for them and determined to change the course of the war, or at least the course of their own lives.

Below are tales of the most inventive and daring among them. 

Elizabeth Van Lew ran a Yankee spy ring in Richmond that infiltrated the Confederate White House.

Elizabeth Van Lew ran a Yankee spy ring in Richmond that infiltrated the Confederate White House. (Image source: WikiCommons)

She Spies

Confederate agent Rose O’Neal Greenhow led a spy ring in Washington, D.C. from her own home near Lafayette Square—“within easy rifle range” of Lincoln’s White House. She seduced numerous Northern politicians and pumped them for information. Her reported paramours included future vice-president Henry Wilson, an abolitionist Republican senator and Lincoln’s chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs.

Greenhow’s Union counterpart, Elizabeth Van Lew, formed her own espionage ring in the Confederate capital of Richmond, even placing a former slave as a spy in the Confederate White House. No one there suspected that Mary Jane Bowser was a highly educated and gifted secret agent with an eidetic memory. She was capable of memorizing images in a glance and could recall entire conversations word for word.

Belle Boyd smuggled a veritable arsenal of weapons through Union lines in her hoop skirt.

Belle Boyd smuggled a veritable arsenal of weapons through Union lines in her spacious hoop skirts.(Image source: WikiCommons)

Smugglers in Skirts

Some women famously brought fashion into the war effort. Ladies clothing of the era included crinoline, the rigid, cage-like structure worn under skirts that, at the apex of its popularity, could reach a diameters of six feet. Some patriotic women capitalized on their cumbersome and cavernous garments, using them to concealing all manner of goods as they passed through enemy lines. On one occasion, a Southern woman managed to conceal inside her hoop skirt a roll of army cloth, several pairs of cavalry boots, a roll of crimson flannel, packages of gilt braid and sewing silk, cans of preserved meats, and a bag of coffee—quite a tally of contraband. A network of rebel women, led by Confederate courier and spy Belle Boyd, crept about Union camps, gathering thousands of unattended sabers and pistols and tying them to the steel coils of their hoop skirts. One day the 28th Pennsylvania Regiment, encamped near Harpers Ferry, discovered a cache of 200 sabers, 400 pistols, cavalry equipment for 200 men, and 1,400 muskets, all stashed inside barns and outhouses and buried underground, awaiting transfer to Southern lines. Women even enlisted their daughters in their smuggling efforts, packing quinine in sacks of oiled silk and tucking them inside the hollowed papier-mâché heads of dolls. 

Emma Edwards fought as a male private in the Union Army. She even took a lover from her very own regiment.

Emma Edwards fought as a male private in the Union Army. She even took a lover from her very own regiment. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In the Company of Men

Women were so eager to fight for their cause they crossdressed to enlist as soldiers—a flagrant flouting of the law, as both the Union and Confederate armies barred females from serving in uniform. Despite the prohibition, as many as 400 women are known to have traded their bonnets and dresses for a cap and trousers, passed a cursory medical exam, and marched off to war. One Northern woman was a staunch abolitionist who fought because “slavery was an awful thing.” A Southern counterpart had more bloodthirsty motives; she yearned to “shoulder [her] pistol and shoot some Yankees.” It often wasn’t hard for women soldiers to fool their male comrades. Men were so accustomed to seeing women’s bodies molded into exaggerated shapes by way of corsets and hoopskirts that few of them could even fathom what the female form might look like in pants, let alone an entire army uniform. Emma Edmonds, who enlisted as a private named Frank Thompson, spent two years serving as a nurse, courier, and spy with the 2nd Michigan Regiment. Although discovery could result in her arrest, imprisonment, and—worst of all in Emma’s view—banishment from the Union army, she took put herself at risk by falling in love with a fellow soldier. Most of the ladies got away with their deception, with a few notable exceptions—including one corporal from New Jersey who gave birth while on picket duty.

Passionate Recruiters

Other women helped their country’s cause by making love, not war. Many Southern belles launched what could be described the opposite of a Lysistrata-style sex strike and proudly offered themselves (and their virtue) to those men brave enough to put on a uniform. And who knows — without their carnal campaign, the Confederate army might have been much smaller. Others simply refused to be seen with men who chose not to fight. One Alabama schoolgirl spoke for her many of her peers when she declared, “I would not marry a coward.” At balls and parties girls linked arms and sang, “I am Bound to be a Soldier’s Wife or Die an Old Maid.” One belle, upon hearing that her fiancé refused to enlist, sent her slave to deliver a package contained her skirt and petticoats, anlong with a terse note: “Wear these, or volunteer.” He volunteered. 

Army surgeon Mary Edwards Walker shown here wearing her Medal of Honor.

Union army surgeon Mary Edwards Walker shown here wearing her Medal of Honor — the only one ever awarded to a woman. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Trailblazing Medicos

Dr. Mary Walker is remembered for being the only female acting assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army during the war, a title she fought for years to achieve. Her usual costume of men’s pants, boots, cloak, and broad-brimmed beaver hat made her even more of a curiosity. Walker worked on the front lines at the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga and Chattanooga. And in addition to tending to the wounded, she served the North as a spy. When General William Tecumseh Sherman was preparing to march on Atlanta, he asked Walker to gather information under the guise of a Union doctor. On April 10, 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops, charged with espionage and sent to Castle Thunder prison in Richmond, where she gave testy interviews to the press: “I am a lady, gentlemen,” she said, “and I dare any man to insult me.” For emphasis she stroked a small knife resting on her lap. Walker developed muscular atrophy during her four-month encarceration and was unable to resume her career as a surgeon. After the war, she lectured on women’s rights and was frequently arrested for wearing men’s clothing. In 1865, she became the first—and remains the only—woman to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Southern Belles had nothing but hatred for the Yankees that occupied their cities. (Image Source: WikiCommons)

Southern belles had nothing but hatred for the Yankees that occupied their cities. Some even went so far as to hurl buckets of waste at the invaders — not very ladylike. (Image Source: WikiCommons)

Rebel Belles

The wartime atmosphere allowed Southern women to rebel against their identities as reserved, genteel ladies — a change that was evident in both action in speech. “I confess myself a rebel, body and soul,” declared a Louisiana girl, adding, “Confess? I glory in it!” Union soldiers occupying Southern towns complained of “she-rebels” who spat at them and emptied their chamber pots—many of which featured the visage of reviled Union General Benjamin “Beast” Butler—on their heads. And when a Confederate official in Alabama suggested that housewives instead save the contents of their commodes for nitrates to make gunpowder, the women enthusiastically complied. A few confederate soldiers commemorated the arrangement with a poem:

We thought the girls had worked enough
In making shirts and kissing
But you have put the pretty dears
To patriotic pissing


Karen Abbott

Karen Abbott.

Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Liar Temptress Soldier Spy. The book was named one of the best of 2014 by Library Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Amazon, and Flavorwire. It’s recently been optioned by Sony for a television miniseries. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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